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Grace Notes

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“THE GREATEST”
by Philip Owen

            We all harbor dreams of one kind or another—the kinds of people we’d like to be, perhaps, or the things we’d like to do.  The Apostle Paul mentions some of those things in the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians, only he does not set them forth as empty dreams but as gifts that some people actually possess.  For example, who wouldn’t want to be able to perform miracles?  Or exercise the gift of healing?  That would come in quite handy right now.  Who wouldn’t enjoy being able to speak with tongues and to converse with people of other nations without spending years in tedious language study?  Who would refuse the gift of prophecy or the ability to be a super teacher?  During the apostolic era, many people possessed those gifts.  But Paul does not set them forth as things to be coveted or sought.  Quite the opposite.  In contrast to these remarkable gifts, he presents something so seemingly ordinary and mundane that few of us would even view it as a gift, much less a valuable gift.  I refer to love.

            I’m sure every rational person desires to be loved.  That’s a given.  Being loved brings with it the promise of receiving the affection, attention, interest, and possibly the benefaction of others.  We all enjoy being the recipients of the fruit of another’s affections.  Quite a gift, really.  But Paul does not have in view the gift of receiving love but of giving it.  And when we read his description of love, we realize that the gift he describes is going to cost us something—perhaps a great deal.

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered; does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  (I Cor. 13:4-7).

That sounds like a gift that few people dream of obtaining.  It sounds like a lot of work, patience, and perseverance.  It sounds a lot more like giving than receiving.  And just how does Paul label this gift?  He uses two descriptions, like bookends, one before and one after the text cited above.

            “A still more excellent way” (I Cor. 12:31b).  He uses this phrase in reference to the list of coveted gifts mentioned in the first paragraph and as an introduction to the topic of love.  Possessing a loving nature is more excellent than being able to command a crowd with my oratorical skills?  Better than being able with a word to stop a destructive storm, feed a starving family, heal a person terminally ill with cancer?  Surely, Paul, you’re mistaken?  After all, Jesus Himself did those things; wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to do that?  Wonderful?  Perhaps.  But Paul is not speaking in terms of the wonderful.  Fully taking into account the miraculous, He is speaking in terms of the “still more excellent way.”  To manifest the love of Christ with its saving power is preferable to the greatest temporal gift.

            “The greatest” (I Cor. 13:13b).  He concludes his short dissertation on love by mentioning the iconic triumvirate:  faith, hope, and love.  And his conclusion?  “The greatest of these is love?”  Well, hope, maybe.  But faith?  Love is greater than faith?  Yes, according to Paul, who was penning God-breathed words.  Faith is essential to salvation.  Salvation comes by faith and without faith it is impossible to please God.  But an infant believer exercises faith, whereas only a mature believer exercises love.  Faith lays the foundation of the Christian’s structure but love forms its apex.  Both faith and hope will cease with time, but love, the very nature of Christ, will continue eternally.

            Many believers desire faith or increased faith so to speak (and properly so), yet the wise, mature believer desires to be like Christ whose defining characteristic is love—of the Father, of the truth, of holiness, and of the lost sinners He came to give His life to redeem.  You may not be a great speaker, you certainly will not be a healer or a miracle worker.  But Christ offers the most wonderful gift of all:  His love in you and manifested through you.  Do you “earnestly desire” to love as Christ loved you?

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